When my husband and I decided to have children, we didn’t put much thought into the broader social impact of the decision. We got together at secondary school and had been discussing the fact we were going to have kids since we were 18, long before we found effective altruism.

We made the actual decision to have a child much later, but how it would affect our careers or abilities to help others still wasn’t a large factor in the decision. As with most people though, the decision has, in fact, had significant effects on our careers.

Raising my son, Leo — now three years old — is one of the great joys of my life, and I’m so happy that my husband and I decided to have him. But having kids can be challenging for anyone, and there may be unique challenges for people who aim to have a positive impact with their careers.

I’m currently the director of the one-on-one programme at 80,000 Hours and a fund manager for the Effective Altruism Infrastructure Fund. So I wanted to share my experience with parenting and working for organisations whose mission I care about deeply. Here are my aims:

  • Give readers an example of a working parent who also thinks a lot about 80,000 Hours’ advice.
  • Discuss some of the ways having kids is likely to affect the impact you have in your career, for people who want to consider that when deciding whether to have kids.
  • Discuss challenges people might face in their careers related to having kids and how they might handle them.
  • Help people feel less alone if they’re finding some of the standard parenting advice alienating — particularly any mothers who feel the literature tends to underestimate how much they care about their career.
  • Write out some of the lessons I’ve learned and things I would have liked to have known beforehand (I still find some of this hard to keep in mind!).
  • Start a conversation with the hope that other like-minded parents will share their lessons and suggestions.
  • Highlight some of the ways the effective altruism community supports parents.

Note different people find very different advice useful, and people’s situations vary greatly by how many children they have, whether they have a partner and what that person’s situation is like, what family help they have nearby, their socioeconomic condition, and so on. I’ve been very fortunate to live in a wealthy country like the UK with a lot of social support, and I’ve been paid well enough to always meet my needs. My experiences will be most relevant to people who are similarly situated. 

And some of what follows will be speculative, because I consider counterfactuals and possibilities that are inevitably uncertain. Also, my son is only three, so I have fairly limited experience. I’d love for others to contribute to this conversation and offer additional perspectives.

Deciding whether to have children

It feels important that working to improve the world doesn’t prevent me from achieving any of the other things that are really significant to me in life — for example, having a good relationship with my husband and having close, long-term friendships.

Becoming a parent was another personal priority in my life. For that reason, I didn’t think much about how having a child would affect the impact I had over my life. While I think it’s important to consider how we can best have a positive impact on the world, I don’t think it’s required or practical to think we might have to give up some of the things that are most important to us in the name of impact.

I did think about it some when considering whether to have more children. The potential negative effects on my ability to have an impact with my career counted against having any more kids, but my husband also was keen to stick with one child for reasons unrelated to impact, so the choice was overdetermined.

Figuring out how to take impact into account when deciding whether to have kids at all seems harder than deciding about a second child — both because the change in lifestyle is bigger for the first and because it’s hard to know in advance what it will be like.

For people going through that, I thought it might be useful to talk through how it seems to have affected my impact. Bear in mind that even in my own case it’s pretty hard to know what the counterfactuals really are. Also I may be biassed toward thinking I can still have as much impact as I want.

Bottom line

My guess is that the amount of impact I will have over my life will be in a similar ballpark to what I would have had if we never had a child.

The reason is that I expect to have the most impact through my career, and the jobs I’ve taken haven’t been very influenced by having a child. My guess is that this isn’t true for everyone, and it depends on the kind of impact you have, the type of jobs you do, and your personal disposition.

On the one hand, this shouldn’t be surprising, because the world is built around the assumption that most people have children. Most workplaces expect that at least some of their employees will be or become parents. On the other hand, people can typically do better at their jobs with more time and effort devoted to them, so it does seem surprising that the challenging and time-consuming work of raising a child wouldn’t reduce the impact one can have in a career.

Working harder probably does allow you to do different jobs than you otherwise could. But this effect often isn’t the dominant factor in what roles you take on. I think spending less time working than I otherwise would is a count against me taking on more senior roles, but not a large count against it.

I also think that I don’t work tonnes less hard than I would if I didn’t have a kid. That’s partly because it’s not like I’d want to spend all my time working if I never became a parent, and partly because my husband and I have been able to set up our lives such that I have plenty of time to work. So probably I work five and a half days rather than six full days a week, which I probably would do if I weren’t a parent. I’m fortunate that my husband has a flexible job, we’re financially comfortable, and we have family nearby. (Note that many of my colleagues work standard five-day weeks and are very successful at their jobs.)

One worry you might have is that becoming a parent could cut off the really high-value opportunities in your career. Although you can still do 90% of the roles you otherwise could, you might worry that, in expectation, you still have way less than 90% of the impact.

For example, maybe you could have a shot of being a CEO of a really successful startup, and that would be way more high impact than your next best option, but with a kid you just can’t pull off the hours this would require.

My impression is that there haven’t been specific roles I would have been able to do had I not had a child that I can’t do now. Though it’s always a bit hard to know what opportunities would have come up had things been different.

That seems fairly unsurprising when it comes to ‘traditional’ types of roles — such as working for a large company or for the government. Those types of institutions aim to ensure that all their roles are suitable for parents, since they expect the vast majority of employees to be or become parents. (This may be more true in the UK than in the US, where I’ve heard less provision is made for parents generally, and there may be important gender differences in how parents are accommodated.)

Less traditional roles like entrepreneurship seem less conducive to being done by parents, given the typically extremely long (and hard-to-predict) hours. My impression, though, is that even these kinds of jobs can be compatible with parenting. However, whether you have a partner and what they do for their career may be a major determinant of your ability to succeed in a demanding role.

The closest I’ve gotten to entrepreneurship was when I was helping set up the Global Priorities Institute (GPI). The director and I were both pregnant at the same time and needed to take maternity leave simultaneously when the institute was just a year old. The institute only had a couple of other employees. Thankfully, we found very qualified people to cover us while we were away, and GPI continued to flourish. Under different circumstances, this might have been a major cost.

I think one important reason it’s still possible to do high-impact roles that play to your strengths even when you have kids is that typically the harder it is to fill a role, the more flexible employers are willing to be on things like location if needed.

For example, when I first joined 80,000 Hours, it usually encouraged people to move to San Francisco, where we were based at the time. But the organisation was willing for me to continue working from the UK since it valued my skills, and the move would have been very costly for my family.

This means that it can be really helpful to get some valuable experience before having kids, as it means you’ll be more able to ask for flexibility when you do have children. But there are a lot of tradeoffs to consider as you plan when to have kids, so this issue isn’t straightforward.

Ways children can affect your overall impact

Although I expect the impact of my career to be in a similar ballpark to what it would have been had I never had a child, I do think it will be lower. Some of the reasons are pretty obvious, while others are less so. Here are some factors that stand out:

Money: Kids are expensive. By far our biggest cost at the moment is childcare — we pay around £350 per week for nursery.[1] That doesn’t count any childcare in evenings or weekends, or when Leo is home sick. This would be an even larger cost for people aiming to donate as much as they can, or for people with lower incomes than ours.

Time: I used to frequently work evenings and occasionally both weekend days. That schedule is decidedly less viable now. My husband and I mostly split evenings and weekends. This allows me to work a couple of evenings a week and whatever part of Saturday I’d like to. I’m pretty happy with that amount of work.

I think the category of work-like things that I’ve most reduced are the activities that aren’t required but can end up being useful in your job: hanging out with colleagues, having dinner with people in my field, and reading or listening to content in an interest-driven way.

Travel: I find travelling quite a lot less appealing than I used to. Travelling with a child is hard because childcare doesn’t come along, so I tend to travel on my own. But that means being away from my family and leaving my husband with a lot of childcare responsibilities. So I now travel only when there’s a really strong reason — about once or twice a year — whereas at one point I was going on trips around every six weeks.

Living constraints: It now seems more costly to move or to have some unusual living situations. During pregnancy, I lived Monday to Friday in London and came home to Oxford (an hour and half or so via train) at weekends. That’s not viable anymore for my family. We’re keen for Leo to go to a good school and have plenty of space to play, so fewer areas and houses seem reasonable places to live than they used to. I’ve considered moving to the US for work, but that seems less appealing if it will mean switching Leo’s school and living far from our extended family.

Their impact: I expect that my child will have a nice life, and I hope he’ll decide to help others along the way. So I think his existing is overall good for the world.

Motivation: Some people report being more motivated to work after having children. They may be more motivated to earn in order to look after their kids, or more motivated to work to improve the future to ensure their children have long, happy lives. Other people report being less motivated by work after having children, because other things seem less important than they used to in comparison to parenting.

I haven’t really noticed either of these effects. Over the medium term, I’ve felt pretty similarly motivated by work after having Leo as before. I did have a few periods of finding it hard to get motivated to work due to childbearing — particularly while I was experiencing morning sickness and after having a stillbirth.

Which children?

One decision people who want to have children face is whether to have their own biological children or to adopt. I felt very strongly about wanting to conceive a child ourselves — I just loved the idea of a human who was part Nic and part me. I only realised this preference when I considered adoption, and it essentially ruled out any alternatives.

I think if I had more seriously considered adopting, I still would have decided against it. One potential reason in favour of choosing to adopt is that you could raise a child who otherwise wouldn’t get a good home. Given the number of people interested in adopting in the UK, though, I expect that kids who wouldn’t otherwise have a good home would face more challenges growing up than the average.[2] I don’t think looking after children is my comparative advantage, so I expect to be able to make a bigger difference by spending the marginal time on my job than spending it looking after a child who needs more help.

Of course, some people and families might find adoption to be the right choice for many reasons, such as in cases of couples who can’t conceive.

Another potential reason to favour adopting would be if you think that it’s bad for there to be more people than there already are, so you want to avoid adding new children to the world.

But personally, I’m not generally too worried about overpopulation. That’s partly because my impression is that we shouldn’t expect the global population to grow hugely more than its current number.[3] It’s also partly because humans are pretty good at innovating when needed. Although new people require more food and other resources, more people also means more ideas for how to increase the food and resources in the world — or how to get a certain number of resources to go further. For example, the invention of dwarf wheat, leading to the Green Revolution, made it possible in the mid-20th century to feed a larger population than ever before.[4]

Things to bear in mind for parenting and having an impact

Pregnancy can be tough

I think I really underestimated the time commitment that comes with pregnancy. Pregnancy is often really draining and can involve a lot of nausea and doctors appointments. Miscarriage early on is also very common — about 25% of pregnancies end in miscarriage, though it’s much more likely early in the pregnancy than later. It can be devastating and physically painful, so this is a significant possibility to prepare yourself for.

If you want to work a lot, you’ll need lots of childcare

Professional childcare providers tend to only operate during normal working hours, so if you want to work on weekends or evenings, you’re likely to need additional help. Children also get sick pretty often — particularly if they go to a group setting like daycare. And typically, they won’t be able to go to the group setting while they’re sick. So you likely need a plan for how to look after the kids while they’re sick. In our case, our parents can watch Leo when he’s under the weather.

It’s OK to do things differently

I was the only parent at my work for quite a while, which meant I had different needs from my coworkers. And importantly, they didn’t necessarily know what my needs were going to be. For example, it turns out that if you want to travel abroad, there’s a surprisingly large number of countries the UK’s National Health Service recommends avoiding if you’re pregnant.

So I had to figure out what would work for me and ask for it. Thankfully, everyone at work was very accommodating of my requests. A few things that have come up:

  • Video-calling into meetings and doing them while looking after Leo — The office has a great video call setup that really helped with this, and people were very willing to have me call in even if everyone else was there in person.
  • Pumping milk in the office — In addition to the actual pumping, the process requires a surprising amount of faff, like having all the pump parts on-hand and a way of sterilising them (plus storage space for the frozen milk!). Thankfully, I could use my office equipment budget to get what I needed for the office.
  • Skipping out on evening events.
  • Making it possible for my husband and son to visit our days-long retreat.

Our family also doesn’t tend to follow the stereotypical pattern of who does what in a family. In some cases we cut corners, like eating a lot of pre-prepared food rather than cooking from scratch, and tending to not write or send cards. In other cases, we see if something can be done by either my husband Nic or me rather than both. For example, I often went to pregnancy appointments on my own.

And Nic has done quite a few of the things often done by mothers. He’s usually the one to settle Leo back to sleep if he wakes at night. I find being different in these ways challenging some of the time because I feel people will judge me for them. But it allows us to live the kinds of lives we want.

Things change significantly and frequently

As adults, we’re not used to changing that much, but young kids change constantly. Different stages bring different challenges, but for the first three years it has seemed to steadily get easier.

I also find parenting more rewarding now that Leo is more of his own little person. It can be lonely being on your own with a baby, in part because it feels weird to interact with a human who doesn’t respond clearly at all to your emotions. It’s been really wonderful watching him start to learn concepts and talk to people.

The rewards aren’t always easy to bear in mind when you’re going through the hard parts! It’s worth paying attention to, though. If you remember it will get easier, you’ll hopefully feel more affordance to take things easy with work while things are full on, knowing you’ll have more capacity in future. Indeed, it’s probably better for your career in the long term if you recognise the time when you have less capacity to do as much work.

Particular challenges people in our community might face

People drawn to helping the world as much as possible are often guilt-prone and perfectionist. Parenting can really exacerbate these tendencies. That might be worth paying attention to so you can mitigate these effects.

I found becoming a parent introduced a large new area for me to feel guilty about. For example, it feels harder to take leisure time because I assume that loving mothers will want to spend all their non-work time with their children.

I really appreciated the book I Know How She Does It for its emphasis on the fact that it’s important to take time fully off rather than spending all your time either parenting or working.

I also found parenting thrust me into a different social world from the one I’m usually in. As I went to parenting classes and listened to parenting podcasts, I felt more surrounded by people with different values to me. That made me feel like the odd one out, and it led to me feeling bad about not living up to their standards. For example, I felt guilt for not cooking meals for Leo from scratch.

I found it really helpful to talk to people who had similar values to me. In some cases, it even helped to talk especially to people who weren’t parents about these issues, because it felt like they could look at parenting decisions more dispassionately. I also really appreciated books by people who felt like they have similar approaches to life to me, particularly Emily Oster.

I also found early parenthood a tough time to be a perfectionist. I was confronted with a high volume of new things I didn’t know how to do, at a time when I was already feeling tired and overwhelmed. For people who are similarly wary of new things, I recommend:

  • Trying out new tasks before the birth. For example, you can put on and tie up your sling or baby wearer, put together and take apart your breast pump, and sterilise bottles (depending on which of these you plan to do!).
  • Doing things with a second person when you’re first doing them. I was intimidated by things like going to a cafe with a baby for the first time, so I initially went with a housemate.
  • Researching post-birth pain relief. People sometimes want to be pretty careful about what pain relief they take after birth, particularly if they’re breastfeeding. After you’ve just given birth is a hard time to research this kind of thing, and you’re likely to want some pain relief, particularly if you end up needing to have a C-section.

Another aspect of this was being compulsive about things like exclusively breastfeeding and trying to figure out what was the ‘right’ version of every baby product. Are these the best bottles for his age group? Which nappy cream should I buy?

I had a friend who had gotten obsessed with exclusively breastfeeding in a way she didn’t later endorse and had warned me about it. But I still ended up in that position. Many hospitals and medical staff like midwives forcefully advocate for certain practices, and it can feel difficult to go against their judgement even when an alternative really would make more sense.

I think things that might have helped me would have been:

  • Thinking in advance about what kinds of decisions I did and didn’t endorse. It could have helped to pick a point in time to reevaluate important decisions. For instance, I could have precommitted to myself that if breastfeeding was still really hard six weeks in, I would test out combination feeding. I think that probably would have been sensible.
  • Getting a list from a friend I trusted of the products that they bought. This would include things like bottles, nappy cream, dummies, and so on. I think that would have made me more relaxed about not getting things too wrong.

One thing I really appreciated was being able to talk to other parents with similar approaches to me. Sometimes this just got me to calm down about basic things. Being told, “Yes, it’s just really hard to get them their recommended daily allowance of iron, we all find it hard,” was a big help. I also appreciated reading advice that systematically looked into the research literature and summarised it comprehensively. This was written after my pregnancy, but is the kind of thing I’d have really appreciated.

Some things that are easier because of our community

I’d like to end with a few things I’m grateful for.

I think the effective altruism community is pretty accepting about people doing things a bit differently. So I’ve felt fine, for example, carrying around Leo while doing a Q&A and asking to sit at my desk while I pump milk (so that I still have access to my computer while doing it).

Some of the parenting books I read warned about being taken less seriously at work if you, say, show people baby pictures. Thankfully, I haven’t felt people take me any less seriously, regardless of how many cute photos I post on Slack.

I’ve never felt wanting for sensible people to think through difficult situations with. I feel like I’ve gotten a lot of excellent advice and kind support over the years. Sometimes that’s been about what you’d expect, like the fellow mother who’s done it all before and can tell me what she did and how it worked. Sometimes it’s really not — it’s the economist colleague who listened to Emily Oster on EconTalk and gleaned tips, or the ex-medic who’s willing to look into the literature on some pregnancy risk you’re worried about.

It takes a village, and I’m glad this is the village I’m in.
 

Notes and references

[1] That’s roughly $420 in 2022 US dollars. For a year, that could add up to as much as £18,000 or $22,000.

[2] “Dr John Simmonds, director of policy, research and development at CoramBAAF, an adoption and fostering academy […] says it’s largely the case that adopters do generally want to adopt children who are young – 18-24 months – are healthy and reflect something of their history and heritage of the adopters.

“‘Children adopted in the UK are mostly children who have been removed from their parents because of abuse and neglect, and where a court has agreed that they should be adopted,’ he says. ‘The impact of abuse on these children is varied, but can result in developmental issues for the short and longer term. These may be physical, emotional, behavioural and learning or a combination and that may include a specific disability. […] Given the typical motivation of adopters, these children are ‘harder to place’. It’s not that they cannot be placed – although some are not placed. But they are still children at heart and they are who they are – not to have the added burden of the use of that phrase.'” Huffpost

[3] Hans Rosling makes this case in the book Factfulness.

[4]“Studies show that the Green Revolution contributed to widespread reduction of poverty, averted hunger for millions, raised incomes, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, reduced land use for agriculture, and contributed to declines in infant mortality.” Wikipedia

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29 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 3:56 AM

Thanks so much for sharing this, Michelle! 

I think I agree with everything you have written. I also personally feel like my husband and I are having impactful careers despite having a toddler + 1 on the way, and I don't think we would be massively more impactful if we were childfree. 

This is due to a combination of factors: 

1. Childcare time has replaced friend socialization time, basically completely. So we still have time to do a "normal" amount of work, we have just reprioritized our non-working hours. 

2. As you know (being my supervisor haha), I work for a core EA org, which has a WONDERFUL parental leave/support policy. My difficult pregnancy has been happily accommodated in every way, and I have paid parental leave when the baby comes soon, which is a huge weight off my shoulders. I know British/European moms expect this, but as an American, it really is wonderful to have this level of support from my employer. So I think working for the right org is pretty critical for being able to have an impactful career while having kids. 

3. My husband founded his own EA startup, so he sets his own schedule. This also allows him to be flexible with his hours and be hyperfocused on working on high impact projects, instead of wasting the working hours he has available on stuff that's less important. 

4. My husband is also an excellent partner, who has been averaging more than 50% of the childcare (especially when I'm too pregnant to function). This is a critical factor in me being able to get work done, despite having a high energy toddler.

5. We have access to 8am-6pm daycare, which covers the normal working day. Unfortunately childcare is insanely expensive in the US. We pay over $2k per month in a high cost of living area for one child in daycare. We're lucky to be able to afford it, but figuring out how you're going to manage childcare should also be considered if you want to have kids + impact. Getting free childcare from grandparents is definitely the dream here. We do have some grandparent help, which allows us to do things like go to EAGs for a weekend, but basically nobody besides grandparents or people you pay seems to be interested in helping take care of children in modern Western society. (Kinda sad imo.)
 

6. Making new humans and trying really hard to give them happy lives seems like having a positive impact to me. I work on some longtermist causes, where it's extremely uncertain what our work now will produce later. But literally creating a new life and taking care of it feels like it has a pretty certain positive expected value :) Or at least more than what I would be doing with my spare time otherwise! 

basically nobody besides grandparents or people you pay seems to be interested in helping take care of children in modern Western society.

I feel like this is more true in the Bay area than in other places. Not sure why. Anyways, if you are in San Francisco and looking to make parent friends where you can have play dates at each other's houses and potentially drop off your kids at each other's houses if there's some kind of child care gap, we should be friends. I live in the Mission district and have a 3.5 and 1.5-year-old and want to build this kind of friend/support network locally.

And if you're in Boston (Somerville area) and are interested in something similar let me know! (1.5y, 6y, 8y).

I second this, but even people you pay for childcare aren't that easily found (at least where we're living - Germany). 

The same with this type of network/friend circle - I absolutely love the idea, but my experience is, that it's hard to build this up and it takes time. Every family is struggling, and have different rhythms (e.g. my kid's nap time is 12-2pm we can meet afterward - oh but my kid is sleeping from 1.30-3pm and then it's almost getting too late before it gets dark/dinner time/whatsoever...), you plan a play-date, and then one kid gets sick - just some examples from real life ;-)

I don't want to sound too pessimistic. That's just been our experience and I wish I'd had more realistic expectations on things like that. 

 

Yes, I do think that most parents in the bay area are too nervous about taking care of other people's kids (maybe it gets better when the kids are 6+ years old and people are more willing to e.g. drop them off at birthday parties where the parents leave). It also requires a certain type of personality to be okay with whatever parenting style your friends or loved ones have when they are taking care of your kids for free, and be OK with their diet, nap schedule, etc slipping while you're gone.

Michelle - thanks very much for a wise, insightful, and accurate post, that candidly acknowledges the many pros, cons, and tradeoffs of parenting. 

As a dad with kids that range from 10 months old to over 25 years old, I agree with almost everything you wrote. EAs might also be interested in my 'AMA about parenting' from a few months ago here

I would emphasize a few points that might lead currently-childless EAs to over-estimate the actual career costs of having kids, and to under-estimate the career and life benefits.

First, having mentored many grad students and young academics, I've observed that many young adults have a cognitive bias to over-estimate their likely career impact and success -- especially in 'winner-take-all' careers where 'many are called, but few are chosen'. So, young adults tend to compare apples to oranges -- their idealized, best-possible-case future (childless) EA career, vs. their realistic, maximum-likelihood parenting career. When making these decisions, it's important not to do that, but to compare the maximum-likelihood childless career (i.e. OK, but somewhat disappointing middle-aged outcomes compared to youthful ambitions) with the maximum-likelihood parenting career (i.e. probably also OK, and maybe 20% less glamorous, but with loving kids). The idealized outcomes, to a first approximation, simply won't happen.

Second, having kids can be enormously motivating in terms of generating the income and financial security required to buy a house, pay for childcare, and pay for schooling. Personal anecdote: I had a modest book contract with MIT Press from about 1992 through 1996, to write a book based on my PhD dissertation. I didn't write it. I dilly-dallied. Then my daughter was born in 1996, and I thought 'Oh no we need the money to buy a house', and I got a new agent, switched to a more mainstream trade publisher, got a much bigger advance, bought a house, and wrote the book within about 18 months. Many such cases. Granted, maximizing income for parenting isn't the same as maximizing EA career impact. But they are correlated. 

Third,  it's important to be realistic about what you'd actually be giving up in terms of time and energy if you have kids. As my old mentor, game theorist Ken Binmore used to say in the 1990s, 'In the real world, most new commitments have only one opportunity cost: you get to watch a little less TV'.  Nowadays, that could be updated to 'you get to watch a little less YouTube, and post less on Twitter'. If you take a realistic inventory of how you actually spend your time, and eliminate a lot of the things that you'd no longer do if you were morally accountable to a partner for doing a reasonable share of the co-parenting, that's what you'll actually be giving up. 

Fourth, having kids usually occurs in the context of some sort of long-term pair-bond (e.g. marriage), and it qualitatively changes those pair-bonds, often in ways that increase life-stability, even at the expense of day-to-day efficiency. For example, if you have kids with someone, you're more likely to stick with them, rather than drifting off into the next relationship. As evolutionary biologists observe, there's a fundamental life-history trade-off between 'mating effort' (to attract the next mate) and 'parenting effort' (to invest in kids with an existing mate). A lot of what young people think is career effort actually, in retrospect, after they have kids, turns out to have been mating effort. 

Finally, a potentially controversial point about career impact: many parents simply don't trust childless adults, and don't take their views seriously. I think that many parents instinctively view adults without kids as defectors rather than cooperators in the Game of Life. They see the childless as having no 'skin in the game', in terms of the long-term interests of our culture, nation, civilization, or species. This may be especially true for parents who are culturally traditionalist, politically conservative, and/or religiously affiliated -- i.e. the majority of humanity we're trying to reach.  Frankly, a lot of what young, childless EAs say strikes parents as immature, naive, and misguided. When an EA says 'I'm happy giving away everything over $35k/year, and anything above that has rapidly diminishing marginal returns to my happiness', parents hear 'Hello I'm a childless single person who doesn't understand real estate, transport, child care, schooling, marriage, or financial security'. When an AI alignment researcher says 'It'll be OK for humans to be replaced by AGIs, because it doesn't matter what form sentience takes', parents hear 'Hello I'll never have any kids or grand-kids, so I don't actually care about humanity'. Long story short, one salient failure mode for EA is for EAs without kids to preach to parents with kids about things that only parents with kids can understand....  Thus, if we're serious about EA being taken seriously by parents, it might help if more EAs become parents.

On your last point, since there are now quite a lot of EAs who are parents, disproportionately senior EAs, I would think we would be well into the diminishing returns in terms of having advocates who parents with that perspective would take seriously?

Hi Jeff -- thanks for your comment.

I think, on the one hand, there are quite a few senior EAs who do have kids (and more every year!), and that's good. 

On the other hand, I think a lot of prominent public-facing EAs still don't have kids, and promote ideas and values in ways that they might do a bit differently if they were parents. 

For example, EA Forum, EA Global meetings, 80k Hours podcasts, etc seem to be relatively childless as a sort of 'young EA default'.   And I imagine that this public-facing EA culture could be somewhat off-putting to potential EAs who are parents.

Apart from the examples I gave above (re. alleged diminishing marginal returns to income over $35k, and long-termist transhumanism that sounds bizarre to parents), I can also imagine parents bristling at the practicality of hard-core ethical veganism (given limited control over what day cares & schools feed to their kids, limited vegan options on restaurant children's menus, etc), or resenting the assumption (which seems common in 80k Hours advice) that all EA career decisions are being made by young single childless EAs with no geographical ties anywhere, or parents with teens worried about their education and careers feeling unhappy about AI advocates brushing  aside all concerns about 'technological unemployment'. (As a parent with a 26-year-old daughter who's a professional artist, for example, I feel fairly pissed off at EAs who celebrate AI art replacing human artists.)

But, these are all rather vague personal impressions, and I'm open to any relevant data or other observations.

In general, I'm just making a plea that EA might be more effective at recruiting and retaining parents if existing parents in EA point out some ways that EA culture is unwittingly ignoring or marginalizing our concerns and perspectives.

a lot of prominent public-facing EAs

I wonder if this is that we're looking at the same numbers and seeing them differently, or whether we think the numbers are different?

If I think of the ten most well known EAs (not sharing the list because I don't want to be ranking people), 5 are parents. Looking through Wikipedia:People_associated_with_effective_altruism I count 32 people, of which I recognize 8 as parents (and others may be). Of the top 50 posters by karma I recognize (a mostly different) [EDIT: nine] as parents, but there are a lot I don't know the parental status of.

EA Forum, EA Global meetings, 80k Hours podcasts, etc seem to be relatively childless

I'm not sure what you mean by 'childless' here? I agree there aren't many children participating in these spaces, but that's also normal in the broader world. Do you mean that we don't talk about children much? That it's common for people to assume the audience doesn't have kids?

AI advocates brushing aside all concerns about 'technological unemployment'

I see people digging into this and comparing it to other risks, not brushing it aside. For example, here's Holden (a parent!) making the case that by the time you get much technological unemployment you probably have much larger disruptions.

Hi Jeff -- thanks for these numbers; you probably know the EA community better than I do, and have been actively engaged as an 'EA parent' longer than I have.

I acknowledge that a significant proportion of EAs have kids (e.g. at least 5/10 top 10 well-known EAs, 8/32 top wiki EA-associated people, 8/50 top EA Forum karma people). But, worldwide, it looks like about 70-80% of mature adults have kids at some point, so EAs might be on the lower end of having kids, and/or skew younger.

But, when I referred to the EA culture as seeming 'relatively childless', I was thinking more in terms of the culture, norms, and perspectives that shape EA values and messaging -- not the relative lack of kids appearing on EA podcasts or at EA events. 

I don't expect parents in EA to talk about their kids a lot -- which becomes very tedious to non-parents. Rather, I'm concerned that having kids in EA might be seen as a decision that requires some special ethical justification or career rationale or impact assessment, rather than as a normal thing that human creatures do after they sexually mature, find mates, and settle down.

Sorry if my tone came across as tendentious; it seems like we probably agree about most of this!

Thanks for writing this - I'm really happy to see people both celebrating the compatibility of EA and having a normal life, and talking about kids and careers.

I will say that I think the types of things that are challenging depend a lot of how much family support you have, what country you are in, and especially, the age of your kids. My oldest is now 10, and for example, while the difficulty of travel greatly decreases as kids get older, the set of responsibilities and the time it takes to deal with kids varies a lot, both with age, and depending on the kid. But overall, I find that younger kids are much more physically draining, and older kids require much more emotional labor. (And I don't even have teenagers yet!)

But overall, I find that younger kids are much more physically draining, and older kids require much more emotional labor.

This is my experience as well (oldest is 12).

I often say that while small children aren't easy, they are simple. While it seems it should be easier to fulfill the needs of older children if you know what they are, it's much harder to figure out what the right thing to do is in the first place. I have a lot more doubt whether I'm doing right by my oldest than when she was small.

I want to say that I appreciate posts like this by parents in the community. I'm an alignment researcher and given how fast things are moving, I do worry that I'm under-weighting the amount of impact I could lose in the next 10 years if I have kids. I feel like 'short timelines' make my decision harder even though I'm convinced I want kids in 5 or so years from now.

Some considerations I've been having lately:

  • Should I move far away from my parents, which would make it harder to depend on someone for childcare on the weekends and evenings? Will we be close to my future wife's parents?
  • Should I be putting in some time to make additional income I can eventually use to make my life easier in 5 years? Maybe it's easier for me to do so now before AGI crunch time?
  • The all-encompassing nature of AGI makes things like the share of household work a potential issue for a couple of years. I feel bad for thinking that I may have to ask my future wife if I can reduce housework in those couple of years of crunch time (let's say 2 years max). It feels selfish... Ultimately, this will just be a decision my future wife and I will have to make. I do want to do at least 50% of the housework outside of the crunch time.
    • It particularly feels bizarre in the context of some wild AGI thing we aren't even confident about how it will go. But like, if someone is the CEO of a startup, it feels more reasonable for their partner to take up additional housework if things get intense for a while. Or maybe a better example is that a pandemic is starting and one of the parents is head of some bio-risk org, I would find it odd if they tried to keep the household dynamic the same throughout the crucial time to limit the impact of the pandemic?
    • Overall I'm trying to be a good future husband and stuff like this weighs on me and I don't want to make the decision in some terrible and naive way like "my career is more important than yours." :/

Jacques -- these are really tough questions. Deciding whether to have kids is one thing in a relatively technologically & economically stable society (e.g. 12th century Europe). It seems incredibly uncertain in 2023, given expected accelerations in certain technologies (e.g. AI), and short time horizons for influencing their development.

I will say this though: probably in every generation since the Industrial Revolution, young potential parents have faced what seemed to be historically unprecedented rates of acceleration in technology and social disruption, that required their urgent attention. When I had my first kid in the mid-90s, it seemed like the Internet would change everything, China would overtake the West very soon, EU integration would change the whole economic fabric of Europe, etc -- and that all sort of happened, but it didn't really change family life all that much. I'm glad I didn't wait to see how it would all play out, and that I didn't devote every waking hour to trying to nudge Internet development in more human-aligned directions. 

In other words, the near-term future might be radically different from now, but that's been true for a couple hundred years, and parents and kids carry on doing their thing regardless.

Hi Michelle, really appreciate you writing this out. I'm also a parent of a 3 year old (and his little brother who's 1). I hope you'll indulge me a few questions. Would you be able to say a little more about

  1. Your outside of daycare support, like how much friends or family you have nearby to help with childcare? Or other arrangements?
  2. How you and your partner ended up arranging your parental leave? How long did you have? Did you stagger your leaves? And did you go back to work full time right away at the the end of leave or did you work part time for a while?
  3. If you think your assessment that having children didn't make any difference to the impact you have over your life time would have changed if you had multiple kids?

Hey Ruth!  Sure thing:


1. Thankfully, my husband's parents live an hour and a half's drive away, and have lots of space. My husband and son go there very week, staying over Friday night. Nic's parents look after Leo for much of Saturday and then Nic and Leo come home Saturday night. If Leo can't go to nursery for some reason for a few days, we all go stay there and Nic's parents help with childcare

We don't currently have any other arrangements. We had a babysitter coming one evening a week for a while, but when they stopped (after about 6 months) we didn't try to find another. It was surprisingly hard to find someone reliable. We had a nanny for about 6 months during the pandemic. She was an old friend of mine, and was fantastic (but not interested in staying longer than 6 months). 

2. I took 3 months. He took a month at the start alongside me, and then he took 9 months after went back to work. He took longer than he expected to because the pandemic started when Leo was 4 months. But also it turned out he liked paternity leave (whereas I didn't like maternity). I went back to work full time right away, though it took me a long time to be back to normal productivity (partly because of breastfeeding being time consuming). 

3. To be clear, I do think having a child has made a difference to my expected impact - I think my expected impact is now lower. But I do think it's in the same ballpark. 
I can't speak much to having multiple children since I only have one. My guess is that it would be a continuation on the same spectrum. Eg maybe if I had another child I'd go from 5.5 days a week of working to 5 days. I find it hard to know how much these increments affect longrun impact. You might think that you do the least valuable work in your marginal half day. Or it might be that there are a lot of really effective jobs that are very long hours, and so with each marginal decrease in time you're ruling out some jobs that might be really high impact. Plenty of people do manage to have very impactful jobs with many children though (like Hilary Greaves) so it's clearly viable. 

Thanks so much for your reply! Yes, grandparent help can make this whole project so much more manageable. We don't have grandparents nearby but our nanny is able to take care of both kids if the preschool closes or the kids aren't feeling well, and it's a godsend.

That's very inspiring that Hilary Greaves has kids! Do you know how many?

> Do you know how many?

6 last I heard, but I might be out of date. 

That's incredible!! New hero. Thank you!!

Thanks for the write-up, Michelle! You write about your "hope that other like-minded parents will share their lessons and suggestions", so I decided to contribute a few thoughts.

I'm currently working as a software engineer for the Against Malaria Foundation (50%) and caring for our one-year old (50%). My wife also has a 50%-job.

Work time: Compared to what Michelle and Abby wrote, I have reduced my work time more strongly after becoming a parent. It felt important to me to experience my child growing up and to personally care for it. I can have 30 more productive years in my career, but seeing the first steps of one's child is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

I'm thankful that AMF made part-time work possible. It took some negotiation and insistence to make it happen. My life feels a lot more sustainable now than if I were to work full-time. I'd strongly recommend that everyone in a similar situation thinks carefully about their priorities and adjusts life/work accordingly.

Money: So far, our child has not increased our budget much, to my great surprise. We got tons of gifts and secondhand stuff (stroller, reusable diapers, 95% of her clothes), so there was little we had to buy. We don't have to pay for childcare yet. Also, German's social security is excellent, and partially compensates for the reduced salary during the first ~14 months of the child's life.

Interestingly, having a child did so far not make us want to buy a house or care more about financial security (cf Geoffrey's comment). This might come later... but so far the financial impact of having a child is far smaller than I expected.

Pregnancy can be tough: Absolutely. Also the time after birth, depending on how it goes. One year after giving birth, my wife still takes physiotherapy and has to refrain from some sports. Another tough point was that we had to stop breastfeeding after seven weeks due to complications... So although pregnancy and birth generally went well, the effects on the mother were hard. This topic isn't talked much about, and I think both me and my wife underestimated the difficulties.

It’s OK to do things differently: More strongly, I think you have to do things differently, by necessity. Each family is unique. There's a ton of contradicting advice. Fortunately, being a parent comes surprisingly naturally, and our species has done it successfully for thousands of years. My experience is that many of the "must-haves" and "must-dos" weren't all that important.[1]

We benefited a lot from having trustworthy people close by. The midwives who supported us were fantastic, their visits throughout the first weeks of the baby's life invaluable. This type of practical support and direct advice was much more important than the more indirect books, videos, etc.

Social aspects: I've been surprised by how much babies are a catalyst for interacting with other people. Everyone is attracted by them; starting conversations around babies is really easy. Being a young parent brings you in touch with other people at a similar stage in life; we formed several new local friendships thanks to our child.


  1. Note: one absolutely must take parenting seriously, and I don't advise anyone to be careless. I wrote this paragraph because the advice I received, overall, made too strong claims, made parenting sound more difficult than it is, and made children seem more fragile than they are. ↩︎

I'm ecstatic that AMF was able to arrange for you to work part time!! I've also been surprised by what good luck I've had with being able to get very flexible part time internships during my maternity leave and being able to go part time until my baby turned one at my day job. My advice for others on this is that if you've already cultivated a previous relationship with the people you work for or want to work for, it doesn't hurt to ask for a non traditional work arrangement. And then more generally, I think that people who want to have impact and also want to have kids can sometimes find creative solutions to have both.

Sjlver --thanks very much for these comments. 

Regarding parental worries about financial security -- I agree that this is heavily dependent on where one lives. In countries with stronger social safety nets, parental leave, affordable housing, and socialized medicine (like Germany and the UK, to some degree), parents need not stress as much. In the US, parents worry a LOT about loss of jobs, which means loss of affordable health insurance; many jobs are less flexible in terms of hours, sick leave, and vacation time; and some cities are absurdly unaffordable for parents who need at least a 3 or 4-bedroom place. Another huge factor is whether public schools are good enough and safe enough for one's kids to actually go there -- or whether one needs to spend the extra for private schools.

On the other hand, I agree with your point about kids not costing quite as much at a day-to-day level as one might think. In many cities there are thriving second-hand markets for kids' clothing, toys, equipment, strollers, etc -- we've bought almost nothing new.  It's easy for parents to get caught up in brand-conscious runaway consumerism --but hopefully EAs have the wit and perspective to avoid such nonsense! :)

Hi Michelle - thanks for writing this. It is exceedingly thoughtful, compelling, and thorough.

Our kid is 28* - so almost everything we went through was before EA (and before we met Jason Gaverick Matheny). We met at an animal rights group I was running, and we went on to found several animal-focused charities (including One Step for Animals). 

One of the reasons I wrote Losing My Religions last year (and have made the eBook free) was to give people an opportunity to live that process and understand the various pressures biology, family, and society place on us. (I also write about a friend, an EA here on this board, who has recently gone through some of the things I experienced.) 

Like your great post, I hope LMR provides people some help.

*Kid is finishing up a PhD in Econ based in part on 80,000 Hours recommendation (but mostly Gaverick).

I absolutely LOVE this article and the discussion it sparked. 
I'm 35, mum of an almost 3-year-old and 1-year-old, and founder of an EA-aligned organization (+ two other side projects). I've always considered myself a powerhouse, life's challenges usually didn't push me to my limits, even though I worked in 60+ hours careers (eg. as a consultant). But oh boy, did that change. In the last year, I've faced moments on a regular basis when I felt like: I can't do this anymore. I cried, I screamed, I thought about just giving up. But I didn't. 
What kept me going:

  • quitting my current position as a CEO might be a temporary relief of responsibility, but eventually I would need to work in other jobs, that come along with other aspects I didn't like in the past (e.g. lack of impact and purpose) - so in sum, it wouldn't be a clearly net-positive thing to do
  • plus I would probably feel some sort of resentment, that I had to sacrifice something very meaningful for my family - not good for the relationships with my husband and kids ;-)
  • things will get easier - a lot of the stress from the last year was a result of our youngest not yet being in the Kita, but eventually she, too, will be a Kindergarden Kid and that will change a lot in our daily routines and bring significant relief; this is an important lesson in general: my husband and I noticed that a lot of the challenges you're going through with kids are phases that will naturally end at some point anyway - e.g. teething, weaning, getting better with naps and so on

I resonate with someone saying here that a lot of the time or activities you'll have to sacrifice are mostly things like watching TV/netflix/youtube. It's true, I am not wasting as much time on "shallow" entertainment like this anymore. In a way, it seems like my time is very efficiently spent mostly on just meaningful things. But let's be honest, sometimes all you need is this form of shallow entertainment (at least for many of us). 

The one thing I wish I knew before and would have factored into our decision is the lack of childcare outside of Kindergarten. We don't have any family close by, but I thought - hey we can just hire a babysitter/nanny. Well, we tried for a year and we couldn't find anyone. Maybe this is just a coincidence, bad luck, and not very representative, but if I had one piece of advice for everyone thinking about whether to have kids or not it's this: make a reality check on how easily available childcare in your area is. 

  • Do you have people that will regularly babysit in the evenings so you can have an evening with your significant other (to reconnect as partners, not just be a team of highly functioning parents)?
  • Do you have people that would be willing to take care of a sick child? Because most of them will be sick a lot at the beginning, which means regular interruptions of your usual routines
  • How many other actual needs to you have that you need to plan in (e.g. do you need a lot of time for yourself to cope with things, to you have a great need for socializing with other people outside of your family, do you need to exercise on a regular basis and so on...) ?

My kids are now almost 6 and 8, we live in Canada. Our kids are hilarious and add a lot of joy to our lives.

Thankfully, we have grandparent support, though we still have had years where we paid 50K CAD for childcare and housekeeping, in order for us to both work big jobs.

At this stage of life, we want to spend lots of time with our kids as they really get more out of time with us than time in public school. We often speak about if we should optimize their schooling situation, our daughter is gifted and our son (likely like many other children of EAs) has high functioning autism and ADHD. Our son now has expensive therapy/tutoring 4 times a week. Our kids have lovely lives and will likely have significant impact, but I caution that their lives are valuable even if they can’t produce impact.

If someone starts an EA school accepting neuro atypical kids, please let me know.

I’m a 39 year old physician, so not in a high impact career (rather doing targeted donations), and I have found my motivation to work big hours/make more has waned in the last few years, as I increasingly value my time and energy. I do travel less as we have to trade off. I don’t know that my working less is directly because of my kids, but having kids provides a ‘good reason’ (read:socially acceptable especially for a woman) to say no to things I don’t want to do. There is a certain mental energy drained by family/household management.

Given that we have awesome kids and the infrastructure they require, we need my consistent income to sustain this, so that my husband can take a risk (he left his executive job) to have a greater impact.

I think many of the above issues would also extend to other caregiver roles, e.g. caring for a parent after a stroke.

I wonder if that's just the nature of earning-to-give careers? That if you do the same thing for a while just to make money that you will eventually get bored and not want to work that hard at it? Versus direct work which seems to me to be easier to feel personal fulfillment around.

I'm sure this varies a lot by person: I was earning to give for ~16y and probably more motivated at the end than when I started. The longer I worked in my field the better I understood it, the more I got to be deciding what I (and later my team) worked on, and the more (non-altruistic) impact I could have.

I don't have a specific comment, but I still want to say THANK YOU for covering this topic and describing your personal perspective while also giving more general recommendations. I just listened to your episode on the 80k podcast from a while back when you were about to become a parent and was wondering how it all turned out. Thanks for adding to this underdiscussed topic!

Thanks for writing this! I've just returned to work after six months off with my first child (my  wife took the first six months, I took the second, we live in the UK where luckily that's a protected right), and have been finding it extremely challenging, so good to hear from people who made it work. My wife and I also share 50/50, and the ability to take shifts has certainly made it more viable (and I don't mind the long Sunday walks with baby and dog while she works!) 

I'd agree with a few comments highlighted - there are maybe a few people who spend their time totally optimally, but for me, having a kid mainly meant less time drinking and playing video games. The quality and quantity of my friendships has suffered, but that is largely down to a combination of me not making an appropriate effort to make friends during the time off, and being a man at baby activities.

The cost of childcare is indeed not cheap, but in the context of earning-to-give (which I do) it's a relatively straightforward trade-off. 

Agree with you re: overpopulation (that, and most readers are likely to live in areas where the total fertility rate is well under 2), and adoption - if anyone is considering adoption as an alternative to conception (assuming the latter is an option), please be sure you've looked into it - improvements in medicine mean there just aren't that many healthy-but-parentless kids around these days. I was relatively neutral on the conception-vs-adoption topic (I tend to have the impulse to take care of every baby/dog/bird/sad person I pass by anyway), but I had a realistic think to myself about my ability and willingness to look after a severely disabled child by choice.

With regards to my feelings about effective altruism, if anything, my feelings have become stronger. I actually cried while listening to an interview on 80k hours regarding malaria and imagining my own child going through that, and separately, that the year 2100 has suddenly become a real year, rather than just an abstraction of the future; my daughter, right here, is likely to be alive then!